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Introducing Rebecka Jonsson: A heart for refugees

by Tyler Graf | Jul 22, 2016


Lebanon, Rebecka and girl, 2016
Rebecka Jonsson, program officer for Africa and the Middle East, in Lebanon with a little friend.

When Rebecka Jonsson’s great grandparents fled Cuba with their daughter – Rebecka’s maternal grandmother — they were laying the foundation for a better life for future generations.

They were like so many other refugees, yearning for freedom and desperate to escape the clasps of persecution.

Throughout her life, Rebecka has been inspired by this story: In the face of stiff challenges, with their lives and livelihoods hanging in the balance, her family made one of the toughest decisions anyone can make. They knew they had to do it, despite only having $200 to their name, which was sewn into a jacket pocket.

Today, more and more people are making that decision, not because they’re looking for a better life, but because they simply have to survive. Both of Rebecka's grandparents knew this well, and so too does Rebecka.

Rebecka’s background is a rich tapestry of cultures, languages and experiences. No wonder, then, that she ended up working for Medical Teams International as the program officer for Africa and the Middle East. 

As a child, she grew up in three different cultures: in Spain, Sweden and the U.S. Because of that upbringing, Rebecka speaks English, Spanish, Swedish, French and Arabic. She says her exposure to these varied cultures has given her a firm understanding of people and a willingness to be open to new experiences.

With all these factors swirling around her, she chose to study international affairs (with an emphasis on migration and economics) at George Washington University.

Upon graduation, she went to the Democratic Republic of Congo to work at a Catholic hospital teaching English and Spanish. This was a formative experience, giving Rebecka a first-hand perspective of the other side of migration and sparking a passion for humanitarian aid. From this experience, she learned that migrants are like anyone you meet on the street, except they are caught in legal limbo. It's a situation that few people totally understand, least of whom might be the migrants themselves.

“I went in thinking that I had to learn so much from the Congolese, as they were so foreign to what I was,” Rebecka says. “Yes, I did learn a lot from them, but I also realized that they are just like me or you – they have the same hopes, the same dreams, the same beliefs.”

To further her education, Rebecka moved to France where she enrolled in a Masters of International Public Management, Migration and Applied Economic Theory at the Paris Institute of Political Studies, where she graduated in 2012.

Rebecka then worked for a State Department-contracted resettlement program, in close association with the United Nations High Commission on Refugees. While in Kenya, this put her in contact with displaced people on a daily basis. Analyzing the behavior of others is not simple, Rebecka says, especially when it’s new to you. "I try and take my time and not jump to conclusions," she adds.

The stories she's heard over the years stick with her. Many she hears over and over again – like the story of a father, whose mere existence caused his childrens’ persecution and eventual deaths. For Rebecka, there is nothing worse than bearing witness to the unimaginable grief of a father who’s retelling the story of how a group of men came looking for him and, in finding he had fled, killed his children instead.

Rebecka and her husband moved back to Portland, Ore., in 2014, when she joined Medical Teams International. Rebecka facilitates Medical Teams’ work in the Ugandan and Lebanese settlements. We are blessed to have her on the Team, as the needs among refugees is at the highest point in modern history.

In 2015, an average of 24 people were displaced from their home country every single minute. There are roughly 65 million refugees living in settlements or camps, displaced all too often by persecution and violence.

Every continent on earth is home to refugees, a disturbing number of whom are vulnerable women and children. The demands, significant as they are, don't dissuade Rebecka.

“The fact that there are so many people that have been forcibly displaced today, be it internally or across a border, is disheartening,” Rebecka says. “I want to learn more about what can and is being done to assist those in need.”